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Humble Beginnings: 56-year-old Ironman, Firefighter Shows Persistence Pays Off

For 56-year-old firefighter and Ironman triathlete Toru Kawana, life’s momentous turning points have come in the midst of a midlife crisis. From each, his persistence pays off in measures of discipline, pride and humility.

A former photojournalist who finally chased his dream to become a firefighter in his late 40s, Kawana draws strength and a sense of profound accomplishment in challenges.

Mid-Life Crisis #1

Kawana describes his first mid-life crisis as a sudden physical and emotional awareness of aging and an out-of-shape physique. That’s when he took up running to lose weight, improve his fitness and cope with the stress of a difficult divorce. “I had never been athletic in my life, but I had to do something. So I started running to burn off stress,” he says.

persistence pays off

Kawana’s first mid-life crisis turned him into a runner.

At first, a tenth of a mile was a struggle. So he set short goals, running to one light pole and walking to the next. “My big goal was to run from my condo to the dog pound (about a mile). I could see the dog pound and knew that’s where I would eventually get.” But it takes time to build endurance, so Kawana persisted.

“When I first reached the dog pound, it was such an amazing feeling,” Kawana recalls. Six weeks later, he was up to 3 miles, and the following month he signed up for his first 10K (6.2-mile) race. “That was my very first ever race, and I was scared shitless. When I finished and got a medal, I was so proud. I realized at that moment that I wanted to keep running and see how much I could improve.”

Mid-Life Crisis #2

A casual encounter with a friend who suggested he give triathlons a try led to the beginning of Kawana’s second mid-life crisis.

In keeping with his ‘go big or go home’ philosophy, he left the comfort zone of running and made the leap to triathlete. Ironman, to be exact, which means 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running. At the time, he didn’t know how to swim. He didn’t own a bike. But he was a runner. One out of three isn’t bad.

“I couldn’t swim, but I kept trying,” he recalls. “I bought a bike for $90 from an ad on REI’s bulletin board that I called the Green Monster and rode that for awhile.”

At his first Sprint-distance triathlon in 1998, people swam right over him in the first leg. “I was incoherent and could barely move,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know which way the bike start was and thought to myself, ‘This really sucks!’” But his daughter is at the side of the road cheering him on, and for her sake, dad needs to finish the race.

persistence pays off

Kawana crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada.

You Are an Ironman

Suffice to say, he was bitten by the triathlon bug and completed his first full-distance event – Ironman California in Oceanside – in 2000. It’s a race he dedicated to his father, who lost his life the year before at age 72.

“When my dad passed away, I realized I needed to work hard to stay healthy. I set my goals and I worked at it. And even though I wasn’t the fastest, I was fit.”

Since then, Kawana has proudly clicked off six Ironman finishes, in addition to seven full marathons and countless half marathons.

Getting Older & Better

The kicker is Kawana is getting faster as he ages and continues to achieve personal records (PRs). His most-recent race – Ironman 70.3 Oceanside – was his fastest-ever finish for the distance.

persistence pays off

Kawana and his wife, Donna, one of the many supporters in his life.

“The reason I got the PR was because of the support from my family and the guidance from my coach, Renee Hodges,” Kawana says. “Without these people, I’m nothing. I did everything the coach told me and set purposeful goals for every single training session.”

Kawana smiles as he tells the story of race morning. “My wife, Donna, said to me, ‘You look scared shitless.’ I said, ‘No, this is my game face. It’s the same face I have when I’m going into a burning building in a first-alarm fire. I may be ready to shit myself, but I’m ready to fight.” 

Mid-Life Crisis #3

To fully appreciate Kawana’s story, you have to understand his cultural roots. A native of Koriyama, Japan, he was raised in a traditional Japanese household. As a child, he struggled to prove his self-worth and had dreams of becoming a firegither. “I grew up in a suppressed society. I was told by my family that I’m too short, too little to be a firefighter. You kind of believe them after awhile.”

In 1977, he got his first look at America as a high-school exchange student. Four years later, in 1981, Kawana made the move to attend college at San Francisco State University. He arrived alone and spoke no English. But he was filled with a fierce determination to succeed and make a his first career as a photojournalist.

After 20 years in the trenches of print media, Kawana felt an undeniable tug to do more. “I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life,” he says. Enter mid-life crisis number 3. The lure of fire trucks and adrenaline called.

persistence pays off

Technical rescue training in the Arizona desert.

The Journey Begins

At that moment, Kawana begins a four-year journey of testing, failing, testing, failing and an inch-thick stack of rejection letters before the call came in that changed his career. At age 47, he would become a rookie firefighter for the Scottsdale (AZ) Fire Department.

“I was almost twice the age of the majority of the guys there; some were younger than my daughter. But somewhere in my heart I knew I could make it.”

Today, Kawana is a firefighter, emergency medical technician and a member of the technical rescue team. And he is grateful every  day for the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I’m not the strongest guy. But I have life experience. And I know how people need to be treated,” he says. “I always treat people with kindness and treat them like I would my own family. I feel that Karma will maybe come back to me.”

Persistence Pays Off

persistence pays off

Kawana and his running buddy, “Under” the Golden Retriever.

Each of Kawana’s mid-life crises represents a critical turning point in his life. “All of these experiences have led me to the career that I have with the fire department,” he says. The divorce. His father’s death. Running. Triathlons. “I’ve learned that you’re free to succeed and you’re free to fail in this country. I no longer live in someone else’s expectations, and I’m very thankful for the way it has worked out.”

At 50, Kawana wore his Class A fireman’s uniform and took the Oath of Allegiance at his citizenship ceremony. “I knew after I became a firefighter that it was time,” he says. “And now I tell my daughter to always chase her dreams. It doesn’t matter how old we are, we have to live our own lives.”

Deathbed Scenario

As a firefighter, Kawana sees people at quite possibly the worst moments of their lives. Because of this, his appreciation for life is amplified, and his advice for aging healthfully is simple.

“Think about laying on your deathbed. Will you have any regrets? If there are, then pursue your dreams because everyone has a firefighter or a samurai or a martial artist in them,” he says. In other words, you find your hidden power when you are put to the test.

“It doesn’t matter how wealthy, how intelligent, how elite status you have. If you’re not healthy, you have nothing.”

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